Lightweight construction is without question one of the biggest challenges of our time. Not only do weight-saving, highly robust structures enable airplanes, road vehicles, and high-precision tools to reduce energy consumption – which already makes these materials extremely important – but every gram that can be saved in weight is a step toward solving one of the “grand challenges” of our generation: product sustainability. And aside from more altruistic motivations, sustainability measures that are good for products also enable manufacturing enterprises to differentiate themselves in the market by highlighting the environmental, economic, or social features of products.
Nevertheless, looking at the issue on a holistic level in terms of environmental, economic, and social aspects, it is sometimes necessary to put people’s delight with shaving off every single gram of weight into the right perspective. Some of the lightweight technologies that everyone is talking about at the moment may need to be scrutinized more closely, especially in terms of the environmental compatibility of the materials they involve or aspects of a more economic nature. Also, one has to wonder which of the technologies that apparently fit in with all aspects of holistic sustainability will actually be ready soon enough to enter general use and make a perceptible contribution to sustainability.
One view is that additive manufacturing (AM) already has major potential. In many ways it could be a highly promisingly step forward in terms of sustainability. AM makes it possible to derive significant potential from lightweight materials. By producing components additively, the technology commonly referred to as 3D printing makes it possible to create material structures that were previously not possible from a manufacturing standpoint. Examples of this: honeycomb structures or homogenous flows within materials with different properties. These involve reducing raw material use to a minimum, thus helping achieve other objectives relating to resource efficiency and, with this, meeting environmental criteria.
There are many facets to AM, which is why it is so revolutionary. It offers ways to completely customize products in a batch size of just one, allowing customers to have their own say (co-creation). Different features can be added, making it possible to create shapes and functions that were previously almost impossible. AM also allows for the production of parts at any time and in any location. This and the other potential benefits offered by AM make it very different from other lightweight technologies; they make it more than just a new production technology across all areas of industry. AM has implications for the entire value chain, in fact it changes it. Also, a whole variety of parts can be produced with a relatively small investment, making it possible to penetrate deeper into markets. The financial viability of additive methods will also improve more and more through continual technology enhancements. All of these factors enable additive manufacturing to contribute to sustainability in economic terms.
AM also has a bearing on the social aspects of sustainability. It is available to a broad population thanks to co-creation between customers and companies. In developing economies with little manufacturing infrastructure, which applies to many parts of Africa, AM can be made available to many sections of the population with only a moderate investment – and without needing big factories or skilled workers. This makes AM more than a technology that is suitable for lightweight construction. Looking at the bigger picture, it has major potential in all areas and this highlights the fact that AM is already hugely important, and it will become even more so in the future. This is the main reason why the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute at the Steinbeis Foundation is pushing ahead with transfer oriented research into the use of AM in an industrial context.